Lessons from the FBI experience

Print edition : June 08, 2002

An FBI official's indictment of the U.S. agency for negligence in converting information into intelligence that could have led to action to prevent the September 11 catastrophe, occasions some reflections.

FEDERAL Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Director Robert Mueller has announced major changes in the FBI's priorities and explained how the fabled U.S. law enforcement agency will be reorganised to meet these. The new focus will be on proactive intelligence-gathering for a frontal assault on terrorism, thereby marking a shift from its current reactive law enforcement mode. In order to achieve this, more than 500 agents will move from criminal investigation to terrorism prevention. This would mean that as many as 2,600 agents would be devoted solely to investigation and prevention of terrorism. The narcotics division, the white-collar crime unit and the violent crime squad will all be made slimmer to provide the needed muscle to quell terrorism.

Mueller's striking agenda comes against the backdrop of an explosive expose by Time magazine (issue dated June 3), according to which the FBI failed to avert the September 11 carnage in spite of being alerted by one of its employees, a woman. Time carries a copy of a missive from Coleen Rowley, chief counsel in the FBI's Minneapolis field office, to the FBI Director that refers to the investigation of Zacarias Moussaoui, a French-Moroccan arrested on August 15, 2001 in Minneapolis after a tip-off from a PanAm flight training school.

Zacarias was identified as a foreigner who spoke bad English and wanted to know how to fly a Boeing 747. Even as the Immigration and Naturalisation Services (INS), acting in tandem with the local FBI unit, held him for overstaying his visa, the FBI checked with the French police on his antecedents. The latter claim that they gave everything they had on him, including details of his past liaison with Islamic militant groups. Armed with information on the dubious past of Zacarias, the Minneapolis field office moved FBI headquarters for permission to obtain a warrant to analyse the contents of his laptop computer. Rowley charges that the FBI headquarters turned down the request made under the Foreign Surveillance Act. The evidence adduced to establish that Zacarias was an agent of a terrorist group or a foreign power did not impress the National Security Law Unit (NSLU) of the FBI headquarters, which is responsible for scrutinising such requests before forwarding them to the Justice Department. Ironically, Zacarias is now the only person on trial for conspiring to commit the September 11 attacks.

In her most outspoken but elegantly-worded indictment, Rowley also refers to an earlier report - possibly from June 2001 - from an FBI agent in Phoenix that raised a suspicion about the phenomenon of several Middle Eastern (West Asian) men enrolling themselves in flight training schools in the U.S. In Rowley's estimate, the Phoenix and Minneapolis reports together provided vital information that could have galvanised the country's law enforcement agencies into action to prevent the catastrophe.

Rowley does not attribute motives. She merely says that the FBI headquarters was negligent in not seeing the whole picture and that it adopted a ruinous high-and-mighty attitude, one that, in my view, characterises higher formations in most law enforcement agencies the world over. Rowley, described as a low-profile and straightlaced lawyer-official, who has been with the FBI since 1980, refers with anguish to Director Mueller's public posture immediately after September 11 that if only they had some kind of an advance warning, Bureau officials could have initiated action to foil the terrorists. What provokes her more is the recent shift in the Bureau's stand, which claims that nothing would have changed even if it had followed up the information received from Phoenix and Minneapolis. According to the FBI, there is little proof that Zacarias was the 20th conspirator.

Rowley's track record is said to be impeccable. It marks her out to be a dedicated public servant actuated by unselfish impulses. This is what enhances her credibility and puts the FBI top brass in a spot. However, in a chat with mediapersons on May 29, Director Mueller was gracious enough to thank Rowley for her letter, and added: "As our focus changes to terrorism prevention, we must be open to new ideas, to criticism from within and without and admitting to and learning from our mistakes." Mueller's candour and humility deserve admiration.

Any critique of the FBI in the context of September 11 should arouse widespread interest as it is of international relevance. No intelligence agency, however large or small, and wherever it is situated, can afford not to draw lessons from it. This is because hardly any region of the world is now impregnable to terrorist designs. The best of minds and the best of technology are today available to a majority of outfits. Also, it is not mere religious fanaticism that propels violent misadventures. There are reasons to believe that human greed driven by economic interests is also not averse to fuelling those with a terrorist predilection.

Every government needs therefore to satisfy itself that its premier intelligence agency has its antennae tuned in to this task and is not taken by surprise. For this purpose, priorities will have to be redrawn and resources reassigned. I can recall how agencies in our country were excessively obsessed with communism till as late as the 1970s. Those operatives with only a modest knowledge of communism and those who were not handling matters linked with it were nearly looked down upon and considered the lower of the species! Luckily, the leadership quickly realised that they were flogging a dead horse. Events like Punjab and the disquieting trends in northeastern India helped bring about a quick transformation in terms of focus and priorities.

Similarly, I remember how Islamic militancy was unknown to many southern States in India till a few years ago. The situation changed beyond belief about five years ago. Discerning this trend, in the new situation, state agencies moved on to study its ramifications and adapted themselves swiftly to the task of containing elements that were distorting Islam to preach hatred and promote violence. This strategic reorientation possibly accounts for the more than a semblance of control currently exercised over many groups. The calm that prevails in Coimbatore and adjoining areas in Tamil Nadu is one example of how law enforcement aided by intelligence can have a grip over a difficult situation. Mumbai is probably another setting that induces confidence, at least for the present.

Rowley's criticism, however, centres not on the FBI's lack of preparedness or its inability to adapt itself to new contours of terrorism, but its failure to put pieces of information together to make sense out of them. The gravamen of her charge is that it was negligent in not converting information into intelligence. This is, however, a typical blame that lies squarely at the doors of many intelligence agencies. The task envisaged here is basically one of sharpening the analytical skills of headquarters staff.

To digress a bit, I remember how we were told at training programmes in the past that if an intelligence agency received information of a sudden flurry of movement of Soviet envoys posted in different parts of the world towards Moscow at about the same time, something extremely important was possibly going to happen in the Soviet Union and the information demanded a follow-up. We were further told that such travel invariably pointed to an unannounced Politburo meeting or a Communist Party briefing on a prospective decision of great consequence. (Incidentally, this often took the Central Intelligence Agency, the CIA, into a spin and made it work overtime to brief its informants on what to look for.) This example may sound simplistic and inarticulate. Nevertheless it highlights how the role of an official who collates and interprets information received from the field is intricate and demanding. It is a role that requires an ability to peer into what on the surface seems an innocuous and a dry-as-bone piece of information and thereafter come up with a sensible argument on why it cannot be ignored. This enviable analytical skill is what is required of headquarters staff, and the absence of it at the FBI headquarters was what Rowley was complaining about. Interestingly, the FBI revamping exercise contemplates greater cooperation between the CIA and the FBI and the drafting of a substantial number of CIA officers into the FBI. This is part of a process aimed at strengthening the analytical segment of the FBI headquarters. In terms of numbers, Mueller hopes to pump in 900 new employees. Of these, 500 would be solely for analysis.

Director Robert Mueller gives a presentation on the reorganisation of the FBI at its Washington headquarters. The FBI has announced that it will move towards more proactive intelligence gathering.-RICK BOWMER/AP

Do we have anything to learn from what is happening to the FBI? While we may not copy all that it is doing, we should not be dumb and do nothing. Before I dilate on this, readers in India should remember that there is a basic difference in the structure of intelligence agencies in the two countries. The FBI combines the role of both the Intelligence Bureau (I.B.) and the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI). While the I.B. is exclusively charged with the collection of intelligence and purveying it to the government, it has no investigative role, which, incidentally, is the preserve of the CBI. While the I.B. may collect intelligence on terrorist activities, any investigation of offences flowing from these will be done by the CBI.

No doubt the existence of two separate organisations can cause a lack of coordination, especially if the two chiefs do not see eye to eye. Generally speaking, however, the arrangement has worked satisfactorily. Analysis and investigation are two distinct skills and the I.B. and CBI complement each other by performing these two vital functions. A CBI investigator with an I.B. background would be a great asset, and this is what the CBI should aim at in order to build a corps of officers who will investigate complicated terrorist crime.

The current situation in the border with Pakistan also makes induction of a few Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) officers into the I.B. a sensible experiment that is worth trying in a small way. At present, the movement is in the opposite direction. This experiment is also likely to take care of the increasing signs of exclusivism that envelops RAW.

The FBI's reorganisation plans to beef up its counter-terrorist capabilities, even by diluting its role in the areas of narcotic and other routine crime, is likely to revive the debate in India on whether another agency should be set up at the Centre to take care of offences impinging on national security. The Ministry of Home Affairs had till recently shown itself to be enthusiastic about this. But there has been very little support for it from the States, without whose concurrence the Government of India cannot create another police agency for the country. In every such proposal Chief Ministers see a ghost that seeks to eat into the police powers of State governments.

Apart from this hard-to-break mindset and the legal tangle, it is worth pondering whether it will be wise to truncate the CBI's authority. It is an undisputed fact that the CBI has been fulfilling its responsibility in the area of anti-terrorist crime with great aplomb and little fanfare. It has officers of enormous dynamism and energy who rise to the occasion whenever called for. In my view, everything should be done to strengthen the CBI's resources, both manpower and equipment, rather than send a wrong signal that it is unequal to a task that is well within its charter.

Finally, how should the I.B. or the CBI react to a Coleen Rowley? The Indian psyche, with all its pretensions to democracy, frowns on dissent even where it is merited. All of us without exception are prisoners to this feudal mentality. We expect total and soulless subordination from those who report to us. Even assuming Mueller did not have much of an option in the present controversy, his acknowledgement of the cause for which Rowley stood up for is refreshing. This should be taken note of by the leadership of RAW, the CBI and the I.B.

I know that in the past they had been tormented by individual employees, some of whom stood up for the wrong reasons and were squarely guilty of being cantankerous and exhibitionist. But a few did display mettle that warmed the hearts of those who desired professionalism in the three vital agencies. We should encourage these officers who may not necessarily be just whistle-blowers. This is because we need to enhance accountability in public life in the country. I am impressed by what Rowley said to Mueller: "It's true we all make mistakes and I'm not suggesting that HQ (headquarters) personnel in question ought to be burned at the stake, but, we all need to be held accountable for serious mistakes." Can we not engrave these words in gold and display them in all our public buildings?

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